Reading As A Writer

I recently received word that I have been accepted into the New York State Summer Writer’s Conference at Skidmore University in Saratoga Springs. The first thing I did, after accepting of course, was to go online and order the books written by the instructors I will be studying with.

I’m about half way through Netherland, by Joseph O’Neil. The New York Times Book Review called it “the wittiest, angriest, most exacting and most desolate work of fiction we’ve yet had about life in New York and London after the World Trade Center fell.”

The hardest part of reading this book so far has been not falling into it. I am trying to learn from it, but I keep getting swept away.

Right now, in my own writing, I am working on scene transitions. While reading O’Neil’s work I have to keep stopping. How did we get back into the apartment? I muse. I flip back a few pages and find that eloquent sentence that lifted me from the Hudson Valley and dropped me back into the main character’s Manhattan abode.

This, I’ve been told, is reading like a writer. It is both a blessing and curse. While I actually learn a lot from the books I read now, part of me misses the experience of just losing myself in a story.

Maybe when I get a little further along in my evolution as a fiction writer I will be able to occasionally put my analytical mind aside, but for now art is life, life is art. Every novel I pick up is both pleasure reading, and homework. I guess I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Delicious Pride

One of the hardest parts about being a writer is taking feedback. Usually my first response to notes (in my head at least) pretty much matches this photo.

When I was younger, my wining, crying refusal of criticism ran rampant. It wasn’t that I thought my writing was infallible, it was more an uncontrolled, defensive reaction to suddenly realizing more work needed to be done on a piece I thought was (if not completely, at least close to) finished.

I was just a baby writer. These days I can say with confidence that I am solidly in my tweens.

These days, when I get feedback, I still FEEL like that little, baby writer. My face flushes, my throat tightens, and sometimes I even want to cry, but here’s what I figured out; in absolutely every case – I ASKED FOR IT.

It just doesn’t seem right to lash out at people who have taken the time, at my request, to read my work and prepare notes. It’s no small task. They are doing me a serious favor. So when I feel that tantrum coming on I just keep quiet. I shut my mouth. No matter how badly I want to speak in my defense – I don’t.

Usually by the time I’ve heard about half of their thoughts I start to realize they are right. My creative brain starts spinning on how to incorporate the feedback to improve the story and I forget all about melting into a pile of tears.

On the rare occasion that I think the feedback is dead wrong I just say thank you (they still put in the time after all). Then I go home, thinking “that was a big waste of time,” sleep on it, and wake up with the sudden realization that they were totally right. It happens every time. The more wrong I think someone is, the grander that midnight revelation will be. (This, I think, speaks largely to the caliber of writer that I’ve been privileged to work with. I have been very fortunate in deed.)

So I’m getting better at taking feedback, and as a direct result, I’m improving as a writer. Who knew that pride could be so delicious?

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Such A Long Road

“The Feathered Tale of Talulah Jones” is a brilliant masterpiece. Told by breakout sensation April Dávila, this charming story of adventure, love and ostriches sucks you in and keeps you turning the pages up until the very end.

This is how my first book review goes – in my head. I think every artist has a fantasy of being the next big hit. We rehearse what we want say to Oprah when she has us on the show, we think about what to wear in our head-shots, we even carefully word the advice we will give to youngsters who are just dying to stand in our shoes.

Of course, no one is going to pay any attention to you at all unless you’ve told a damn good story in the first place. So for now it’s work, work, work.

As I continue to move through this process of writing my first novel, I feel I’m making good progress. I have 120 pages of a decent second draft that reads like this:

Lovely prose about whatever survived the first draft. Painstakingly chosen words, good imagery, all that.


Then back to the prose. And so on…

When I finish replacing the sections that are currently in all capitals, I’ll have a completed second draft. The scary thing is, I’ll still be far from done. I fully expect to do about fifteen drafts. When I actually stop to think about how long that could take, and how sick of this story I may be by the time I’m done with it I get overwhelmed.

No wonder I avoid these thoughts, and instead chose to mentally peruse my wardrobe for what I will wear for my first visit to The View.

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Ostrich Races Here I Come

On Friday morning I am flying to Arizona for the Ostrich Festival taking place this weekend in Chandler.

I am so excited. In addition to the races, there is also an ostrich parade, and a whole mess of other events such as stunt shows and petting zoos. I’m not exactly sure how many of these are ostrich focused, but I can’t wait to find out.

My hope is to soak up as much ostrich culture as I can. I want to know if there are slang words people use for ostriches. How does one get into ostrich racing? What are the finer details of racing or even just raising ostriches? Why would one want to race an ostrich?

I am so curious. I feel like a kid on Christmas eve.
If anyone out there is, by any chance, attending the festival, please let me know. I would love to meet up and talk some shop.

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I Found A Pulse

I spent the last week working on revising just the first 25 pages of my novel. I’ve been focusing on the “heart” of the story and I’m happy to report that I think I’ve found a pulse.

Let me give you an example.

I have a scene where a young version of my character is being picked on by her uncles. In my draft as it read last week, she was all cool and calm about it. After some delicate tweaking, she is vulnerable and scared. Now when I read the scene I get tense. Even though I of course know she pulls through just fine, I actually feel what my character is feeling. That must be a good sign.

Another thing I’m trying to do is give my character room to grow. I’m used to short stories, where my characters don’t have that much time (in terms of pages at least) to change. Realizing that I have hundreds of pages to let Talulah mature, has allowed me to go back and hone who she is at the beginning of the story – and, like in the scene I mentioned above, she starts out more timid. She may very well become a sassy bitch by the end (I don’t know yet), but she definitely doesn’t start that way.

So this approach of taking one 25 page chunk at a time and looking (scene by scene) for the heart seems to be working for me. I’m hoping to turn in fifty revised pages to my advisor next week. Hopefully she will feel the difference in the story. We shall see.

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The Heart

I had my first thesis meeting of the semester today.

My advisor, having read the first 80 pages of my rewrite, was scratching her head, trying to figure out why my story doesn’t seem to have a heart. She seemed genuinely stumped.

The structure is good, she said, as is the writing, and yet something is missing. Once I got over the shock of hearing that my story (the story I pour my blood and guts over every day) has no heart, we got busy brainstorming about why that might be.

Again, it seems to come down to my main character. Talulah has no flaws, and she doesn’t have any strong reactions. Life just kind of happens to her. That’s not to say that the things that happen aren’t interesting. I feel I’m being plenty hard on her, it’s just that I’m not getting much reaction out of her, and therefore, I’m not getting her onto the page effectively. As my advisor said: “if this were a screenplay, it would be perfect. The actor would fill that in.”

But it’s not a screenplay.

So the second thing I’m dealing with is fighting off discouragement. The pep talk in my head goes something like this: I am in the process of revising. This is a draft. I never had any illusions about this being my final pass. This is the process of writing a novel. Take comfort in the fact that so much is going right.

Then I just think it’s time for a glass of wine and at least one episode of “Lost.”

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The San Francisco Writers Conference

If I learned one thing this week at the SFWC, it’s that there are a million things a writer can do besides write.

In two and a half days I sat in on eleven seminars and three key note speeches, and every one at least touched on how to utilize Twitter, Facebook, blogs, websites, LinkedIn, internet radio, you name it. It’s very exciting, and very distracting.

Ultimately the thing that matters the most (and this came up many times over the weekend as well), is that your writing be good. No, not good – excellent. You can tweet your heart out, and gather thousands of followers, but if your novel sucks, all the networking in the world simply won’t matter.

This brings up a swell of anxiety in me that only the Maverick surfers would dare ride, because I did very little writing this weekend. True, I wrote a few posts for my other blog (if you haven’t seen it yet check out, but after going three days without touching my fiction work, I’m surprised how distant it feels. I guess it was a busy three days, but still, I’m having trouble even remembering where I left off.

So I need to exercise a little time management today. I can blog, and tweet and book my face off, but I also need time to turn off all those distractions and sit quietly with Talulah Jones, because really, it’s all about her.

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Forty Years

I’m thinking about making a (semi) major story adjustment. I’m considering moving the whole tale about forty years into the past.

Here’s my thinking: All stories basically come down to some really simple idea (as George Lucas said of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – “it’s a father son story”). The thing that makes them interesting is the setting (for instance Italy during the second world war).

Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by the late sixties/early seventies in California. I’m particularly drawn to how the role of women in society was changing; the birth control pill was introduced and Row v. Wade was passed, woman began stepping into more powerful roles in business while still juggling children, the divorce rate in the US doubled between 1965 and 1976,

So in telling my ultimately simple story (girl trying to save family farm), it seems to me it might be more interesting if I set it in this tumultuous time period. A young woman running a farm by herself is a little more interesting in 1969 than in 2010.

There’s also the appeal of the party scene in 1969. From what I understand, kids today ain’t got nothing on the sex, drugs, and rock & roll craziness of the hippies. That could be fun to explore as well.

The one downside to this time jump is the increased amount of research I will need to do. If you have any thoughts, especially if you happen to have been a young woman in 1969 in California, drop me a line. I’d love to hear them.

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Why Ostriches?

When I tell people that my novel is set on an ostrich farm in the southern California desert, the question inevitably comes up: “why ostriches?” but watch these two videos: RACING and FARMING and you’ll have to agree, ostriches are both powerful and dumb, which makes them hilarious as far as I’m concerned. There’s something about those big eyes, connected to those tiny brains that appeals to me. Did you know their knee joints bend backwards? Or that they mate three times a day? Or that they can run up to 50mph? The more I learn about ostriches, the more fascinating I find them, but that was not the reason I originally set my story on an ostrich farm.

The real reason was that I wanted to tell a story that was (very) loosely based on my mother’s experiences growing up on a dairy farm near Sacramento, but I love the desert and wanted to set my novel somewhere in or around the Mojave. While googling, trying to find a dairy farm in the vicinity of Kramer Junction so as to justify plopping a fictional dairy farm in the there, I came across the OK Coral Ostrich Farm website. It occurred to me that an ostrich farm is like a dairy farm, except a little odd, and somehow magical.

Before committing to the idea I contacted the proprietor of the OK Corral, a man named Doug Osborne (that’s him in the Dirty Jobs clip), and arranged to take a tour of his farm. Half a day walking around his forty acres convinced me.

Since embracing this aspect of my story, it has lost all resemblance to my mother’s childhood, but I was expecting as much to happen. It is becoming a story all my own, with the Mojave desert and a flock of three-hundred pounds birds as a backdrop.

I’ve been working on this story for over a year now, and I just get more and more excited about it as I go. On Wednesday I am heading back out to the OK Corral to grill Doug on some of the finer details of ostrich husbandry, and I’m very much looking forward to the visit. I’ll tell you all about it next week.

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The Winner Is

Thank you all so much for your input. Many good arguments were made, as were many interesting suggestions for that matter, and I’ve made my decision. My main character’s name will be Talulah Jones. Thank you Summer for the suggestion. I think MMC’s comment about the misspelling being distracting is less of a factor, given that it’s an unusual name, and I really like Anne’s point about choosing something a little ghetto. Still, keeping it on the simple side of ghetto feels right (as opposed to Tallooolahg – with a silent g). Thanks again to all who gave feedback, online and off.

In other news, you may have noticed a new feature on the page this morning. At the top right up there is a little drop down box where my readers can rate my blog. If you have a second, let me (and the surfers at know what you think of The Unfolding Tale. You can also click here to go directly to the blogcatalog website and leave comments along with your rating.

This leads me to the larger theme of this week which is time management. I’m feeling a little frantic, because I’m not working on anything but the novel. Before I started this project I had a few short stories in the works, a screenplay I wanted to do revisions on, and more blog work I wanted to do, but now, when I sit down at the computer, if I’m not working on Taulah Jones I feel like I’m not moving toward my goal of finishing it in time to graduate. I’m feeling stressed.

This week I’m going to try to give myself some time to play around with some other ideas, maybe polish up a short story I’ve been working on so I can start sending it out. There just never seems to be enough time in the day. I feel like I could write for ten hours straight if life didn’t intervene, but then again, that’s easy enough to say. If I actually had ten hours, I’d probably develop a sudden need to paint my toenails, weed the garden and clean the closet.

Thanks again to everyone for the feedback, I’m going to get to work now. Catch ya next week.

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